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Lessons in Communal Change: A Case Study Parshas Bo

Today, I’d like to share with you a good story. It’s a case-study, a real live one, that’s taking place as we speak. It’s about conflict resolution and making lasting and meaningful change in a community. It’s a story about our community, and I think our representatives in Washington would probably do well in taking some notes.

On Wednesday night, renowned-psychologist, Dr. David Pelcovitz, chair of YU’s Psychology and Jewish education department and past scholar-in-residence here in Ner Tamid, was in town to speak about substance abuse in the Jewish community. It was the kick-off event for a new communal organization, called Chayeinu. The organization’s goal is to provide assistance in combating substance abuse in the Orthodox community.

The event was a smashing success. They had a huge, diverse crowd, full communal support, and people walked away empowered to do more.

I’d like to spend a few moments dissecting that event, viewing it as a case study, because I think we can all learn a lesson or two from their success. To do so, allow me to first digress to the parsha –

Moshe, the Torah tells us, was not a very eloquent speaker, which makes G-d’s choice of Moshe to lead the Jewish People at this juncture rather odd. If there was any time in Jewish history that we really needed a lift-me-up, rah-rah, Winston Churchill-type leader it was then. And yet, G-d deliberately chose a man who couldn’t speak very well at all. Why is that?

Rabbeinu Nissim, one of the great Medieval philosophers explains with a timely insight: Had Moshe been an eloquent speaker, it would detract from his message. The Jewish People would later on claim that they were duped into accepting the Torah, overawed by a polished leaders’ rhetoric. And therefore it was actually crucial that he didn’t speak that well, that he never gave electric speeches, that people weren’t moved and taken by his persona. Had he been charismatic, he may have been successful at the get-go, but the shine and glitter would have eventually worn off. Eloquence, charisma, while they are sweet to the ear and eye, they dull the brain.

Quite similar to the danger of charismatic leadership is the use slogans. Slogans, like charismatic individuals stifle intelligent discussion. They are attempts to over-simplify complex issues and galvanize people by pulling on their emotions. What charisma and slogans have in common is that they distract from the real issues.

It has been noted that in Washington today, we are no longer debating conservative or liberal ideas, we are rallying around charismatic individuals. For Republicans, it’s the president, for Democrats, it’s the likes of Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez. Whose snarky tweet was funnier? Who clapped back with more punch?

The same is true for slogans – every Democrat and Republican believes in both security and immigration, the question is where to draw the line. Every Democrat and Republican believes that life is sacred and women have full autonomy over their own body. But instead of talking about the issues, and where and how to draw those lines, we end up yelling slogans about life and choice, and about walls, and whose twitter feed is more powerful. These are distractions from the real conversations of how to best balance values that everyone agrees upon.

Sadly, we’re not immune to such things as an Orthodox community. There are modern Jewish leaders, so caught up in their charisma, who speak of revolutions, even spiritual revolutions. There are Jewish leaders who post more pictures of themselves on social media than the Fiji girl, and there is no shortage of Jewish leaders who seem to have all the answers (and when they speak of not knowing the answers, it’s a feigned humility that couldn’t fool a ten-year-old). That’s sad, and frankly, those type of people are downright dangerous.

We also have slogans, or calls-to-action, our Orthodox Jewish community’s favorite slogan is that everything is broken. As some have joked, there is a crisis crisis; everything seems to be a crisis. One of the most popular punching bags is the school system. Our schools don’t allow for enough freedom of expression or freedom of inquiry. Our schools emphasize intellectual study and leave those less intellectually-inclined in the dust. And thanks to our lousy schools, we have the following – fill in the blank – crisis.

 

What was refreshing about this event Wednesday night was that they weren’t hyperbolic about the issues at hand. They didn’t blame the opioid crisis on the challenges of the observant lifestyle, or the schools that aren’t accepting enough. They didn’t even blame the addictions in our community on the kiddush clubs. They could have, and in doing so they would have riled up the troops.

But to do so would be a distortion of reality and ignoring the fact that substance abuse is not a Jewish issue. It’s a national issue.

To be very clear, men getting intoxicated on Shabbos morning is a terrible practice; it’s horrible modeling and could be a place that an addict gets their next fix. And to be clear, many of our schools need a LOT of work and are not sensitive enough to individual students. And, children who struggle at school have a greater risk-factor of ultimately going down the road of substance abuse.

But if kiddush clubs, bad schools, or uniquely Jewish societal pressures were the true causes of substance abuse, then the leading cause of death for all Americans under 50 wouldn’t be drug overdose, it would only be true for Jewish Orthodox Americans. But it’s not. It’s a national epidemic.

Too often, we take this myopic view and blame the prevalence of issues, national issues, on unique features of the Jewish community. Blasting dysfunctional school systems is a great way to galvanize the people, powerful videos that highlight unique Jewish features like kiddush clubs are exciting, but they prevent us from seeing the big picture, a more accurate picture.

Thank G-d, we don’t have a monopoly on crises. Substance abuse, reporting on child abuse, young men and women leaving the fold of their faith, none of those are exclusively Jewish issues. They are universal. The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal reported that one in ten cases of child abuse in developed countries are reported to the appropriate agencies. 10%! That’s horrible! But that’s a national, or international statistic, not a Jewish one. A recent Pew study demonstrated a steep decline of young Americans identifying as Christians. Young Jews are not the only ones leaving the faith. When did we get so self-centered that we can’t pick our heads up and realize that our issues aren’t ours alone?

Charisma, catchy phrases and speeches, playing-the-blame-card, do a very good job at generating excitement. But if you’d like to get to the root of an issue, speech impediments are the way to go. Don’t pander to the populists. That’s one thing this group got right.

Here’s another – for months, maybe even a year before this kick-off event, the leaders of this group were meeting with school principals, with rabbis, with addicts, with former addicts, and with thought-leaders in the community. They were seeking out a better understanding of what has been done and what needs to be done. In doing so, even in asking the questions, they were changing the way people thought about addictions. They were effectively creating broad-based support for their cause even before they got started.

Two weeks ago, a fascinating debate exploded on my Facebook feed. Two Orthodox outsiders, two social activists who live on the fringe of the Jewish community were arguing, quite fiercely, as to whether change should take place from within or from without. One side argued that no significant change in the Orthodox community ever took place from within and therefore, ready? Attacking the Orthodox Jewish community is the only way to make social change. The other argued that without building bridges with the existing leaders and communal support groups, a greater disservice was being done by drawing people in need of support away from those who could really help them – albeit in an imperfect fashion.

Now excuse my analogy, and you’ll understand what I mean by that in a moment – one of the great mysteries of the story of the Exodus is Moshe’s ongoing dialogue with Pharaoh. Why bother? Why speak to a man who you know will reply to everything you ask him with, “No, no, no. I will not let them go?!”

Perhaps there is an eternal message here. Perhaps G-d wanted to demonstrate the importance of working within the system. Yes, there were plagues raging on outside. G-d wasn’t waiting all that patiently for Pharaoh to come around to his side, but it is clear that G-d’s best-case scenario was for Pharaoh to agree on his own, for the change to come from within. Because building bridges, even shaky ones, is always better than burning them. Moshe attempted to build a bridge with Pharaoh, of all people. It’s hard to believe that any of our communal systems are more sinister than Pharaoh’s.

This is not my own idea. It’s something the great Abarbanel writes, addressing another question that is often asked about the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus. When G-d appeared to Moshe, and when Moshe spoke to the Jewish People, it was abundantly clear that they were leaving Egypt for good. And yet, when Moshe asked Pharaoh to let the Jews go, it’s only for three days. Three days of service in the desert, and then we’ll come back, Moshe said. Was it just a ruse? Was he just tricking Pharaoh?

That’s what it seems like. But Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests that Moshe was saying the truth. Had Pharaoh said yes, they would have left for three days and then come back. And then Moshe would have asked for another few days, maybe a week this time. And then they would have come back. And this would have happened time and time again, until eventually Pharaoh would have let them go for good.

You see, Moshe was playing the long-game. Moshe was asking something monumental from Pharaoh, for incredible changes that weren’t really practical. The entire economy rested on these Jewish slaves. Think of the South before the Civil War. Even those opposed to slavery had no idea how the economy would survive without it.

Moshe recognized that to get Pharaoh to let the Jewish People go would take time; time for Pharaoh to develop a new way of looking at the Jewish People, time for him to see that Moshe was not out to punish him, time to reorient himself and his country to a whole new way of life.

We have so many wonderful Jewish activists in our community. So many people are brimming with a desire to help those in need, to change what is indeed broken. The last thing I would do is tell them to stop. I would ask them though, to consider the long-game. There are times of course, when people’s lives are at risk, times when the long-game is inappropriate. But more often than not, more good will come about with patience and perseverance, recognizing, lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, it is not upon us to complete the task, aval lo ata ben chorin l’hipater mimenu, neither are we free to do nothing at all.

There are so many issues that need to be worked on, in our community, outside of our community, wherever. It’s overwhelming and it’s almost impossible to know what to do and when. But I think we can all learn some lessons from this wonderful group, Chayeinu, who is combatting substance abuse in our community, lessons that I believe go back to our first and greatest leader Moshe, and they are:

  • Charisma, hyperbole, slogans are distractions at best, dangerous at worst. Blaming national issues on communal problems is exciting but almost always false.
  • Just because coalitions no longer exist in Washington, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make them. Partnerships, working from the inside, using the communal infrastructure that is often not broken, but could just use some help, is a far more effective tool in bringing about change.
  • Lastly, play the long-game. With patience and perseverance a slave-owning nation could have transformed into the first emancipators.

With patience, partnerships and an eye on what we’re really fighting for, may we work together in changing our community and the world around us, one step at a time.

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